China Report: Sitting tight in China

December 29, 2007 at 6:34 pm (General Information, Overseas Tour) (, , , , )

Nigel and I decided not to do the day trip to the Great Wall with the company again, as we’d done that seven years ago. We didn’t have the energy to make our own trip to the more remote part of the wall. After the relaxation and obvious therapeutic benefit of two consecutive days of Chinese medical massage (we had slept like babies) we didn’t want to over-excite our senses by doing something silly like taking a leisurely coach ride. Usually, coach trips in China are pretty exhilarating. But more on that later.

In fact, being a passenger in taxis in the cities is quite an experience too. In the cities, it’s more akin to slow rally driving, and most often the seat belts don’t work or aren’t there. Nobody really follows lanes – they just dash in and out where they think their car might fit, sounding their horns – ta-taaa – as they manoeuvre. It’s as if they’re expecting applause for their feat of spatial acuity. In fact, I’m impressed by their driving skills. In Beijing, for example, most of the road system, which has doubled in area since we were here in 2000, is wide with at least ten lanes, divided carriageways of course. But they don’t really get to drive at thirty miles per hour very often. Even so, the traffic mostly keeps moving. It’s on the whole an efficient and safe way to travel. I’m convinced all those years of travelling on cycles instilled a sense of travel community. I’ve not seen any road rage in the cities. And the traffic is colossal and never-ending. So the taxi we’re in becomes the filling in a bus sandwich, or more often the interloper snaking its way across lanes from right to left, left to right. It doesn’t matter. But whether from good luck or simply more superior road sense, we’ve had no scrapes. I am on the side of superior road sense. I think Chinese drivers in their bustling cities have developed an acute sense of spatial awareness. They are good at squeezing in to that quickly diminishing gap in the traffic. I’ve seen a row of seven cars abreast where there really are just five marked lanes. Throw the few enduring bicyclists and moped riders into the mix and it’s probably best to keep smiling, or laughing nervously so at least your driver thinks you’re enjoying the sights.

Last evening here in Nanjing as Nigel and I were walking to a restaurant we witnessed a car accident. But I was amazed as there was hardly any traffic. Nanjing is much less crowded than Beijing. Obviously two cars went for the same lane. The first one got in the lane and the second one followed too closely and ran up the back of it. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very bad result, although the crash made quite a crunch.

Travelling by coach on the freeways is a different matter and can be counterproductive if you’ve spent good money on a Chinese massage. The coach drivers, like the rest of the motoring fraternity, are audibly keen to get to their destination, sounding the horn every few minutes as they go. The message translates roughly as I’m coming through so get out of my way or don’t even think about changing into my lane. The day we were coaching from Wuxi to Hangzhou the fog was horrendous and had interrupted our journey, the police choosing to close the motorway for an hour and a half. Soon, we understood why when just a few minutes later we took a turning onto a motorway that was still under construction. As we travelled along the road-in-progress, inwardly questioning the wisdom of using this road given the visibility was still alarmingly low, the coach driver picked up speed. He was sounding his horn every minute and more often when he overtook on a dual carriageway into the oncoming traffic lane in the fog – trusting in his intuition or taking absurd risks – which ever way you want to look at it. Soon we passed a shocking sight. The lane that wasn’t finished came to an abrupt halt and at its edge was a huge drop to a ditch. Teetering on that edge was a car that had simply run out of road. I spent most of that trip with my hand over my eyes. Nigel spent most of that trip trying to decide whether he was going to tell the driver to slow down ‘the next time he does something ridiculously dangerous’. But then it became a matter of deciding degrees of ridiculous riskiness. So when the last risk was riskier than the current one … well, I’m sure you get the point. Of course, with the weather it was a difficult journey for the driver – a three-hour drive turned into six hours. So that does take some stamina, and clearly some nerve. I guess we’ll all be looking forward to our next long coach journey?

Diana Solano

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